The Road Back Home
As he looked around, Jeb could only see living corpses. That’s what he thought about the rest of the crew of the “Wavelight”. Only a few weeks back, the ship had been full of life and activity and now it lay silent and dead on an unnaturally calm sea. They had been drifting aimlessly with dwindling supplies for a while now, so rations had been reduced slowly for everyone, until captain Strom decided to stop them altogether for everyone except two crewmen who seemed stronger, more disciplined and capable than the rest. These two would be the only ones receiving what little food and water they still had so if the wind would pick up again the crew would have someone who could man and steer the ship back on course. The rest of them lay around the deck, emaciated and bereft of power. Jeb thought to himself “Is this it? Is this the end? Am I going to die here?”. How many times had he thought the same things on this forsaken journey?
He slowly turned his head to the cloudless sky and let his thoughts drift towards his beloved family waiting for him back home. His wife Tammy, a hard-working woman close to her thirties, with brown hair and a slender figure, with a soft, calm voice and a kind smile, always working on her chores inside the house while their two children, Mary and Tom, were playing loudly outside. A faint smile appeared on Jeb’s dry, blistered lips. Those memories always had that effect on him, no matter how dire his situation was. He tried to remember why he had left them and why he was now on a floating tomb, slowly fading away. Instinctively his right hand moved and grabbed the place where he had sewn the small pouch of gold coins on the inside of his pants, so he could always have it close to his thigh. It was still there, tucked away nicely and safely.
Jeb and his family lived a simple, hard life in a small, isolated village on the fringe of human territories. They had worked hard with the other settlers to claim a small corner of the unforgiving wilderness as their own. The entire community toiled away until slowly their outpost grew and turned into a small village. Nature provided for their needs. They dug up a mine in the nearby mountains, where they found rich deposits of ore and coal. Slowly, trade routes were established with nearby villages, and their community flourished. But Jeb always seemed to be unsatisfied, he always wanted something more. Whenever he would take a break from his work, he would look at his wife and his children, and even though they seemed happy and content, and somehow his entire being seemed to settle, his mind was racing with thoughts of a better house, better food, less work, better clothes…. Whenever he met Tammy’s eyes, she would smile happily. Sometimes she would drop whatever she was doing and hurry into his lap, hands around his neck, to give him a big smile and a furtive kiss. He would always smile and push her away thinking “Silly woman, what if someone would see us acting like this…”. Jeb would spend some of the evenings in the tavern, where he would drink and talk with the other men about going ons or news from beyond their village. And one such evening, his long-time friend, Smith, excitedly shared news of a work opportunity that would change their lives forever. Workers were needed for establishing a new outpost in a land far away, across the sea, but the pay was very attractive. The seed in Jeb’s mind took root very fast, and he was already imagining the possibilities and all that he would do with the money, for himself, for Tammy and the children, for their house and everything else. The idea did not appeal to his wife, she even objected to it saying that they had everything they needed and wanted nothing more, but Jeb would not have any of that nonsense.
He slowly formed a plan in his mind, and after a week he waved his family goodbye and took to the road with Smith alongside. Smith did not have a family of his own, and didn’t seem to care too much for it either. All he needed was some ale in his mug and a warm fire at night and that seemed to satisfy him.
It took them many months to get to the new outpost. They had to cross the great sea by boat and then the long trek through the wilderness followed, both through sun-burnt fields and thick brush. The work was hard and the conditions tough, but Jeb had already been through it all once before, and that helped him cope with the harsh conditions.
At the end of it all, once the settlers had built sufficient defences and houses to be somewhat self-sufficient, the workers were no longer needed so they were offered their promised gold and a chance to stay. Much to Jeb’s surprise, Smith would not return with him. His friend had changed during these many months - he had met a young woman who was now pregnant with their first child, and since there was nothing calling for him back he had decided to stay and make a life for himself there.
Jeb was not alone though, other workers that did not want to settle, like himself, would join him at least until the first village, and a few even on the boat trip. They travelled together to fend off the dangers of the road - first and foremost, there were cowardly bandits who would search to steal their hard-earned coin, and then there were the wilderness’ predators. One night, while everyone was gathered up around the fire, a young lad wandered a bit too far from the camp to relieve himself and got jumped by a giant sixcat that snapped his neck before he could even scream.
As they slowly approached their main objective, the port of Olmskirk, some of the men parted ways. When they found a shipt that would take them on as passengers, Jeb only had four companions from the outpost left at his side. There was no strong bond between them, for each man kept to himself most of the time, but it was good to have a familiar face around, especially since none of them felt at ease in open water. As luck would have it, there was another ship bound for the same destination, so the captains decided to sail together and help each other in case of pirates or any other need during such a long voyage. Passengers and resources were split among the ships, so Jeb and two of the workers boarded the “Wavelight” while the others went on the “Seacat”.
The first week at sea was uneventful. The ships were gliding along, pushed forward by steady winds, sailors going about their business, while Jeb was thinking about home and how happy everyone will be when he will return with his gold-filled pouch. That night, as he lay in his hammock trying to fall asleep, he imagined a bigger house and expensive silk dresses for his wife, the crops and sunny weather when all of a sudden a crewmate shook him up in his hammock “There’s a storm! Come help!”. He stumbled to the deck and stopped in awe at the terrifying weather that was unleashing. It was not raining yet, but the wind was picking up fast and the sea was swelling. He heard his name being called and moved towards a few of the crew who needed help. As they worked the best they could, conditions got worse - the wind had picked up and it was now howling while rain was pouring down hard, making everything more slippery and more difficult. The waves got bigger too, making it hard for the sailors to keep on their feet. Jeb had done what he could and was now trying to return below deck when he heard screams from the crew. Everyone seemed to have lost their focus and were pointing or shouting towards the “Seacat”. He stopped and turned his gaze in that direction and as he peered through the watery veil of the storm and his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw the other ship quite well - it was lagging behind, as if dragged by something heavy. There was something beneath it - something monstrous that seemed to be slowly rising from the rage of the sea and reaching towards the deck, grabbing at the mast. From what Jeb could make out through wind and rain it seemed like enormous sea-snakes crawling upwards. As the thunder roared and lit the horrific scene he realized with terror that what was gripping the ship were in fact meaty tentacles. The sailors seemed to be frantically trying to attack the massive bodies with harpoons, swords and hatchets, but it made little difference, for their efforts were in vain against such a massive foe. The Seacat seemed to be overpowered, being grabbed and pulled on either side, when something happened below the waves. Thunderous cracks were heard, even with the storm blowing, and the sailors gasped as they saw what seemed to be rows of giant teeth biting and breaking the ship’s hull. The creature pulled and bit and hissed, dragging the ship below the waves in a matter of minutes.
Although they tried to find survivors, the storm and the darkness made it very hard to steer the ship, so the Wavelight had to abandon the search or risk being engulfed by the unforgiving sea, or even worse, that creature could have returned for them as well.
The rest of the night was uneventful but exhausting for the crew. None could sleep, both because of the storm throwing them about but mostly because of the terrifying encounter that haunted everyone’s mind. The captain remained on deck for the whole ordeal, trying as best he could to keep the ship from capsizing, barking orders and keeping the crew in shape. Only in the wee hours of the morning and after the storm relented did he release command to the first mate, then walked steadily to his cabin.
Jeb came out from below deck in the afternoon, and the sight before his eyes was opposite to what he had seen during the night. The sun was burning from a blue, friendly sky while the ship was stagnating in a calm, waveless and windless sea. Even though he had not slept at all during the night or the morning, the man felt a little bit better. He closed his eyes while drawing a deep breath in, and when he let the air escape, a bit of worry left with it.
While grabbing the pouch of gold in his hidden pocket, he started thinking about his family again and a shy, hopeful smile slowly curled on his lips.
A few hours passed without any event. The sun kept burning in the cloudless sky while the ship waited for a breeze to move her along the mirror that had become the sea. Nothing happened though. The captain was giving orders left and right to keep the men busy, but he knew that they were in a worse situation than the men who had been dragged to the bottom of the sea by that monster. The storm had pushed them outside the planned course and into a dead zone. All they could do was wait, hope and pray for the wind while their supplies would slowly dwindle.
Days passed and nothing changed. Captain Strom ordered the strict rationing of food and drinking water. With constant hunger and malnourishment setting in, everything seemed to slow down. After several more days everyone was just laying around the ship looking gloomy. Normally, the captain would have never allowed for idle hands on his deck, but now conserving energy had become the priority. One day, as he lay motionless on his back looking at the sky, Jeb slowly raised his head and looked around, but all he could see were living corpses. He couldn’t remember for how long they have been drifting there with the sails deflated. His emotions had ranged from happy to furious, frustrated and desperate, and now he was calmly wandering if that was the end. If after all the perils and hardships he had endured he would never get to see his beloved family again. While touching the little pouch filled with coins from his trousers, he felt sorry that he would not get to buy them something nice and then he slowly closed his eyes and went to sleep. He woke up suddenly later the same day. A cool breeze was caressing his face and as he raised his head and adjusted his eyes, he realized that something had changed. He couldn’t really figure it out right then, but he could see the crewmen talking instead of moaning, some standing on their feet and some even moving around. The energy was different, alive. Then he realized - a cool breeze! The wind was picking up again and the ship was moving. The two crewmen that had been kept on larger rations were manning the ship as best they could under the close inspection of the captain, setting course back for the nearest port.
As soon as they reached it they all went and celebrated with ale, fried lamb and stew. Their remaining rations had been depleted right before they had arrived. The captain had to let them all eat better or risk a mutiny, so a gamble had been made. But in comparison to what they had seen and survived through, it seemed like a small problem to have. The people from the port didn’t always believe the wondrous stories of monsters from the deep, but the men didn’t care. All were happy to be alive and back on land and they all lost themselves into what they loved most - some eating the best the taverns had to offer, some drinking themselves into oblivion and some losing themselves in the arms of women of the night.
Jeb spent little time celebrating - just enough to enjoy a good meal - then he bid the few friends he had made farewell and set on the road again. Even though the village was still far away and isolated from common roads this time he wasn’t so worried about thiefs or other dangers.
As his donkey carried him through the land on winding roads, he felt his impatience grow. He hadn’t heard any news from the village since he had left. Oh, how Tammy would marvel at the news that Smith had taken a wife and settled down! And what were the kids doing? Had they grown? Days passed and the roads became smaller and windier, until he left them behind for a small path through pine trees. After a while even the path disappeared, but now he knew the general direction to follow, since he was almost home.
The clouds were peacefully floating above while a blood-red light was shining through the branches of the trees. A slow breeze was gently blowing on Jeb’s face, but he was not noticing anything, for all he could think of was the moment he would open the door to his house and be greeted by his family once more. As he approached the village, dusk gave in to the evening, which then turned into darkness. No sounds could be heard except the wind and the trees.
As he was hurriedly crossing the village on its main street towards the other end where his farm was, he realized that the atmosphere was different. He stopped his trusty donkey, which was becoming increasingly agitated, to look around, suddenly nervous. The first thing he noticed was that there was no light behind the windows or doors of any of the houses. The second thing he noticed was the oppressive silence. Usually there would be voices and life coming from every corner, cows mooing while being milked, drunkards leaving the tavern, children screaming. Now there was nothing and it felt like time was frozen. And for the first time since he had left two years ago, Jeb asked himself if everything was well with his family. A feeling of dread started to creep in the back of his mind, and as he sat there pondering he caught, with the corner of his eye, something moving unnaturally in the shadows behind the closest house. He didn’t have time to react because his little donkey started moving on its own, clearly spooked. As the man was fighting for control over the animal’s will, he couldn’t stop but think about the strangeness of the place.
He found his house in the same state as the rest of the village - silent and dark. His eyes, now well adjusted to the night, could barely make out the shapes and contours of where everything was. Jeb was feeling very uncomfortable, with black thoughts now haunting the back of his mind, praying that his family was safe. As he jumped down from the saddle and rushed towards the door, he again saw something in the distance. An instinct stopped him for a moment dead in his tracks, frozen by a primal fear, and looked towards the woods and the ending village road. He could barely see two silhouettes - one that was leaning against a tree and one that was lying on its belly on the ground. They both looked tall and thin and were barely moving at all. The one standing seemed to be swayed by the wind, just like the forest. The one on the ground didn’t seem to be moving at all, until, suddenly, it started lifting its head and looked straight in Jeb’s direction. What came next terrified the man to the core - an unnatural gutural but loud moan, something that could not have been coming from the living.
He quickly pulled the door open and entered his home, shouting for his family “Tammy! Children! Are you here? Are you alright?!”.
The small room that had served as kitchen, playroom and bedroom for all of them was silent and dark and looked like it had not been used in a while. With what little light came from the night sky, Jeb could make out the bed, and to his horror, something that looked like a still person lying in it. He slowly got closer, trembling with terror as he recognized the frame of who was once his wife, but was now just a dead, decaying husk. It looked like the last thing she had done before she died was to embrace her two children, who had suffered the same fate as herself.
Jeb started sobbing, crying and shouting, falling to his knees before the bed and the gruesome scene. He slowly lied in bed next to the dead, sobbing and uttering nonsense. As he did so, the little pouch of gold made a small clicking sound.
Outside something was slowly crawling towards the door.